SAN ANTONIO — There are some stories so compelling that they write themselves. Any narrative about Brandeis High School football player Mark Lara and his battle with cancer the past year would be in that category.

In remission after having surgery last December to remove a tumor from his spine, Lara has defied the odds by returning to play the game he has loved since he was a preschooler.

A senior linebacker, Lara will be in the starting lineup when Brandeis (2-0) plays Marshall (1-1) in a District 28-6A game Saturday night at Farris Stadium.

“Mark is just an outstanding young man,” Brandeis coach David Branscom said this week. “We were as protective of him as we could be during the recovery process, but we couldn’t keep him off the field.”

Just as fire tempers steel, Lara’s struggle with cancer has made him stronger.

“It was pretty tough,” Lara said this week, reflecting on what he has been through since last August. “I just had to always keep a good mindset, perspective, I’m going to get through this. Good positive attitude. Going through this taught me not to take anything for granted.”

A triplet, Lara was born with a degenerative disc in his back that wasn’t discovered until he went to see a doctor after a fall on the basketball court when he was in the eighth grade. Lara’s pain was so intense during preseason football workouts last year that he had to sit out Brandeis’ scrimmage with Judson.

“It would get so bad that he couldn’t walk,” said Rebecca Garza, Lara’s mother. “We took him to the orthopedic doctor and after they ran tests, they told us about that mass in his back. The reason he was in so much pain was because the mass was pushing against his spine. I couldn’t believe what was going on, but I knew I had to be strong for Mark.”

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Brandeis senior linebacker Mark Lara, left, and his cousin, senior defensive end Chris Garza, have been playing football together since they were four years old. Photo by David Flores / Kens5.com

Asked what he would tell someone fighting cancer, Lara said: “Have faith in God. Stay close to your family. Know you can get through it. Anything is possible, and have a positive attitude toward everything.”

“It was very exciting, the adrenaline going through my body,” Lara said. “It was indescribable.”

Lara missed his entire junior season as he struggled with the effects of the germ-cell cancer and the chemotherapy he began only days after his diagnosis.

Still, Lara was at every Brandeis game to cheer on his teammates. Too weak to stand, he observed the action from a wheelchair or a scooter.

“It was really a hard time,” said senior linebacker Brent Malone, one of Lara’s best friends. “We just tried to focus on the positive things. He was why I played last year. I dedicated the season to him and he knows that. He was huge inspiration. Just seeing Mark and how he brings a positive attitude to every day. He really motivated us on the field.

Lara had surgery to remove the tumor Dec. 19, and was back home on the day after Christmas. Homeschooled from August 2017 until he returned to classes at Brandeis in February, Lara was cleared by doctors to resume light workouts in a closely monitored program. Although weakened by his illness, Lara turned to his experience as an athlete to push through the early, difficult days of his comeback.

“It felt good to be back,” he said. “I loved the challenge, missed every part of it. Seeing the results of the progress I was making kept me going. I could feel myself getting stronger. It was great to be around my teammates again. I missed them a lot. They were a big part of everything. It was hard to be away from them.”

Naturally, Rebecca Garza worried that her son would push himself too hard and suffer a setback.

“I asked him, ‘Are you sure this is what you want to do?’” Garza said. “He said, ‘Yes, Mom, this is what I want to do.’ He loves the game of football. It’s just always been in him. The last two games, I’ve been on the edge of my seat because, you know, he’s in remission. It’s not like he’s been cleared 100 percent."

“And that’s still my fear. What happens if it comes back? Now I can think about it. When people ask me, ‘How did you get through it?’ I say 'I don’t know.' I didn’t have to time to think about anything else. I was just trying to get my son through it. People ask me if I cried and I tell them, 'cry about what?' I didn’t want him to see me break down. I had to be strong for him.”

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Brandeis head football coach David Branscom said this week that although he and his staff tried to be protective of linebacker Mark Lara, it was difficult to keep him off the field. Photo by David Flores / Kens5.com

Branscom recalled his thoughts about Lara rejoining the football program when he returned to classes at Brandeis in February.

“I was cautious, concerned about him, of course. Even a little apprehensive,” Branscom said. “But he wanted to work and get back to it.”

Lara has a cousin on the team, senior defensive end Chris Garza, who is like a brother to him. Lara’s parents are divorced but he remains close to his mother. Lara’s father hasn’t been in his life since he was 4, Lara said.

Lara attended middle school in Judson ISD but moved in with an uncle, Manuel Garza, before his freshman year at Brandeis. Manuel Garza is Chris Garza’s father and Rebecca Garza’s brother.

“Mark and I have always been close,” Chris said. “We’ve been playing football since we were 4. We started in flag football and then went to helmets and pads in Pop Warner. This whole experience with his illness has been pretty scary. It just popped up randomly. It was a pretty big shock to me, but it really didn’t hit me until he started going through chemo and I started seeing how all his hair was falling off."

“He was pretty strong about it. Every day, he’d wake up with smile on his face ready to face the next day. I missed him when he was in the hospital because we were always together. I knew he was going through chemo and struggling. It hurt me a lot to see him that way. I would spend the night with him sometimes.”

Manuel Garza said he considers Mark Lara his second son.

“We’re a very close-knit family,” Garza said. “When you have somebody who has this evil cancer disease, it affects the entire family. We all kind of lived it. When we found out Mark had cancer, I reconstructed my life so it could revolve around the surgeries, the treatments, the rehabilitation. I just thank God he’s in remission right now. It’s a blessing that he’s even on the field right now."

“Mark went through a lot, but we always looked at the end of the road where he was going to get better. There was no other way. Whether he played football or didn’t play football, when people are battling cancer, it’s a life-threatening disease. Mark is the living embodiment of the strength of a kid and the courage that he had to get back on the field.”

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Brandeis senior linebacker Mark Lara, talking with a student trainer and teammate during a break at a workout this week at Farris Stadium, missed his entire junior season after being diagnosed with cancer. Photo by David Flores / Kens5.com

Lara did not suit up for spring practice with his teammates, but he did go through non-contact drills. Finally cleared to play football in June, Lara participated in strength and conditioning workouts this summer and was ready for preseason workouts in August.

“It was very exciting, the adrenaline going through my body,” Lara said. “It was indescribable.”

After such a long absence, Lara’s mere presence on the practice field and in the locker room gave the team a big lift.

“It was extremely shocking when we first heard he was sick,” Malone said. “As far as we knew, Mark was in perfect health. He always played really fast and always had been a very strong player on the field. He showed no indication that anything was wrong. He usually toughed everything out. When we all got the news, it was heartbreaking, to be honest.”

Brandeis coaches and players describe Lara as an inspiration whose example of perseverance stands as a testament to the strength of the human spirit.

“There have been a lot of teachable moments for everybody,” Branscom said.

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Brandeis senior linebacker Mark Lara, who fought back from cancer to return to the football field, was going to be a starter last year before he became ill and missed his entire junior season. Photo by David Flores / Special to Kens5.com

Defensive coordinator Preston Meyer agreed.

“Mark is not only an inspiration to his teammates, he’s an inspiration to the coaches and everybody else,” Meyer said. “Anytime you think you’re having a bad day, somebody like him, you just look over there and see him and you realize that, man, things could always be worse.”

“He’s just a hard-nosed kid. He’s a grinder. He’s a linebacker at heart. It just shows in everything he does and the way he battled through what he’s been through, his ability to come back.”

Although Branscom kept a close eye on Lara’s workouts when he returned to school in February, keeping him from doing too much proved to be easier said than done.

“He probably did more than he should have,” Branscom said. “You take something away from somebody and they’re facing a life-threatening experience, and then you try to be protective in the process, and he’s looking at you like ‘Don’t tell me what I can’t do.’ He’s just that kind of guy.”

Lara said he was humbled by the support he got from so many people.

“I just want to say thank you to everybody and to God,” he said. “The Brandeis community was great. My teachers came to my house to help me with my homework. Really, the whole Northside School District was great. I didn’t do this alone. I had plenty of help.”